Jack Helsell's property, located just past West Sound on Orcas Island, looks something like a 19th-century agrarian utopia. The house was built of timbers cut at Helsell's own sawmill. Horses handle the plows, and Helsell's wife, Jan, cooks on a wood stove. There are chickens, sheep, geese, a handful of horses, and a husky-mix named Chief. In a barn just south of the house sits a collection of old buggies in various states of disrepair.On a recent afternoon, Helsell idles his pickup truck just past the barn and walks up to the mill. His sawyer, Benjamin Nuñez, is struggling with the clutch on a dump truck. Helsell watches him for a minute."He's the best worker I've ever had," Helsell says.The truck safely parked, Nuñez hops down and introduces himself.Nine years ago, the lanky, crooked-nosed Nuñez struck out from Guerrero, his home state in Mexico. In his pocket was the cash he had saved over 11 years. At Mexicali, he says, he paid a coyote (a people-smuggler) $700 to sneak him into the U.S. Once stateside, he got papers and made his way up to the San Juans, where Helsell hired him. Helsell says his lead sawyer at the time—an American—was lazy, but that Nuñez worked like an ox. When the American quit, Nuñez took over.
The beginning was rough—and Nuñez is missing the tops of his right ring and index fingers to prove it.
But he soon mastered the work. The key is to get the most lumber out of each log, Helsell says. A sawyer needs to size it up and look for shape—whether it's tapered, whether it has large knots, or whether a pitch seam has the potential to ruin the lumber's integrity. "If he's not good, he wastes lumber and cuts inefficiently," Helsell says. "There's a real art to it." And there's not many people left that can do it. Large mills such as Weyerhaeuser use scanning equipment that tells the sawyer where to cut, Helsell says. Those guys sit in a booth.These days Nuñez runs all the equipment on Helsell's property: the loader, the excavator to clear a pond (best topsoil on the island, Helsell says), the dump truck, and, most important, the sawmill. He does twice the work alone that he and the other sawyer had done combined, according to Helsell.
But working for Helsell isn't Nuñez's only job. He also helps care for an elderly woman named Natalie White. At 80, she still lives on a farm on Orcas Island, along with two dogs, 17 cats, two guinea pigs (she used to have 150), 12 raccoons, and a herd of deer. She says Nuñez spends about an hour a day feeding everybody, watering everybody, and cleaning out the occasional litter box. He also changes light bulbs, tends her vegetable garden, weeds her flower garden, and mows her grass.When White had a stroke on March 3, paramedics wanted to airlift her in a helicopter, but White refused. "I get deathly afraid of heights and I figured if I went up, I'd have another stroke or a heart attack and that would end the whole thing right there," she says.Eventually, she talked the paramedics into letting Nuñez drive her to the mainland. He packed a bag for her ("I told him to get my pajamas because I don't like hospital nightgowns") and off they went. At the ferry dock, workers loaded Nuñez's car last so that White could access the elevator to the second floor more easily.White says that once the boat docked in Anacortes, Nuñez led her down the elevator, loaded her in his car, and started the engine. They were the last car off the ferry. As they drove off, Nuñez saw the Border Patrol agents."They're going to get me," Nuñez told White. "Don't be afraid."On Feb. 29, Joe Giuliano had ordered his officers to set up a checkpoint to stop passengers from the San Juan Islands as they disembarked at the ferry terminal in Anacortes. Giuliano, the Deputy Chief Patrol Agent of the Blaine Sector of the United States Border Patrol, had received reports from his superiors in Washington, D.C., that terrorist organizations were exploring the possibility of using established smuggling channels to bring their own trade to the United States. One of those channels, Giuliano worries, is San Juan County.For generations, law-enforcement officers have struggled to patrol the archipelago; the miles of rugged coastline provide a foothold for those who wish to forgo the formal international entry into the United States. Giuliano recognized that anyone who landed on the islands illegally would have to take a boat or a plane to get to the mainland. To help plug the gap, he ordered his officers to check cars and passengers coming off the boat in Anacortes for signs of trouble. But Giuliano knew the checkpoint was likely to sweep up more than just terrorists. There is a population of undocumented immigrants on the islands as well. And Giuliano, the son of an immigrant himself, knew that they too were likely to be caught in the sweep. He was right. Officers arrested six undocumented aliens that first day. Within two weeks, they caught 18 more—one of whom had a criminal record. They detained no terrorists.
Now, Helsell says, Nuñez just "helps him out," rather than being an official employee. (Nuñez is under orders not to work and Helsell not to pay him.) Helsell says he could limp along for a bit without Nuñez, but would probably have to shutter his mill for good.
The detentions, and fear of them, are also weighing heavily on local business owners.
"All week, I've been working on a job where I need a guy to pick up brush and debris," saysJeff Bossler, a long-haired, long-bearded, soft-spoken man who owns a nursery on Orcas. "The Hispanics who are here are swamped because the other ones have been picked up."
Bossler is having to make his own supply runs to the mainland because wholesalers won't bring him flowers (or anything else) anymore—they're afraid of having their own drivers busted. "The only people they have to deliver are Mexicans," Bossler says.
One nursery owner on the mainland, who did not want to be identified, corroborates the statement. He lost an "excellent" worker, he says, when the man went to the San Juans on a vacation with his daughter. "He didn't show up to work Monday, and I heard later from one of his friends that he was arrested by the Border Patrol," the owner says.
So will his business deliver again to the islands?
"Hell, no," the owner says.
Bossler's drives cost him time and money, which ultimately comes out of the customer's pocket. "I charge for it, but it sets me behind," he says. Since the checkpoint went up, Bossler says, he's had to raise his hourly rate from $30 to $35. He charges $240 as a base fee for landscape work done on the mainland. He used to charge $180.
The work's getting done, but his days are "extra long and hard," he says. "More work isn't necessarily better. Up to a point, it is. But if it gets to be where you're never home with your family and you're tired, it just goes on and on."
Bossler tosses out names of other construction contractors who he knows are struggling with the situation. But none of them return repeated calls. Bossler understands their reluctance.
"A lot of people won't talk about it, because if you say 'X company won't come out to the islands anymore, or is losing workers,' what you're saying is: They hire illegal aliens." Nevertheless, an acute labor shortage exists on the island, he says. The islands have an inordinate number of retirees, who increase the market for manual labor, he says, and most of the time that work comes from Mexicans who may or may not be here legally.
Dhoogie buys the brush from self-employed pickers—these days, almost all of them Latino, as one might guess from a blackboard near his warehouse office offering instructions in Spanish—who spend up to 16 hours a day in the woods, in part to maximize their return and in part to avoid the agents who prefer staking out the area during the day.